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Back from Iraq

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Army Spc. Beth Oshiro always understood the significance of the Fourth of July. She enjoyed celebrating the holiday and her love for her country.

But thie year’s Independence Day at Pawleys Island meant more to her than any other.

“It has a deeper, more intense feeling for me now that I’m back home,” she said. “I’ve never appreciated my country more. It’s amazing how much we have here and take for granted — little things like running water, electricity, toilet paper, the ability to walk down the street in real safety.”

Oshiro, who turns 47 this month, was stationed in Iraq with the Brigade 1/25 Support Battalion until June. She’s staying in Pawleys Island through the end of this month to be near her fiancé, Jay Burton. After that, she’ll transfer to Fort Gordon, Ga., but won’t be deployed again.

Oshiro’s tour of duty wasn’t supposed to end until September, but she got a medical discharge after falling in a warehouse and injuring her wrist in November. She was part of the brigade’s support medical company and was tasked with getting medicines and other supplies distributed.

“I tried to stay there and stick it out,” she said.

But the pain was too much and she was sent home to undergo surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It was only the second time she’d been home since her deployment last fall.

She’ll never forget how she felt when she landed on American soil again that first time, when she came home for leave in April.

“I got off that plane and I literally got down on my hands and knees and kissed the ground, because you’ve got no clue of what and how these people live over there,” she said. “I thank God for my country every day now.”

When she got home, the first thing she wanted to do was go to the beach.

“I wanted to see sand with an ocean and not just sand,” she said.

She recalls how amazed she was when she got there and spotted three boys playing ball on the beach.

“I hadn’t seen kids playing in so long,” she said. “It was the first time in eight months I’d seen kids just playing and not throwing IEDs [improvised explosive devices] at us. They weren’t trying to kill us.”

When she came home again in June, this time knowing she was there to stay, her relief was even greater. But it was inextricably mixed with guilt — guilt that she’s safe at home while friends and compatriots are risking their lives overseas, living in conditions most Americans would find appalling.

“I live like a queen and I get to be with the people I love, the man I love,” Oshiro said. “I get to go to the PIT [Pawleys Island Tavern] when I want to, I can drive where I want to go and not worry about anything. And my friends are back there, and it’s a rough time for them now. The first and last 90 days are the worst, because insurgents know when we’re coming and going.

“As much as I want this, it’s hard, knowing what they’re going through and I’m not with them.”

Oshiro said her time in Iraq changed her forever. She had no idea what she would face there when she enlisted, or even if she would be deployed. But if given the chance to go back, she said she’d do it again.

Oshiro’s first stint in the military was with the Navy. She served from 1982-86, but it was during peace time and her experiences then were nothing like the ones 20-plus years later in the Army.

When she left the Navy, she went to work for the airline industry.

Then 9/11 happened.

Oshiro, a New York native, had a friend who was a flight attendant on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

The tragedy sparked a strong desire in Oshiro to serve her country again. She wanted to do it to honor her friend and all the others who died that day, she said.

But it wasn’t as easy as she expected. Because of her age, it took her a while to get accepted.

“They kept telling me no, but I was adamant,” Oshiro said. “I think they thought I would give up, but I was determined about putting this uniform on.”

In December of 2004, she got her wish and was stationed in Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

“It was a drastic shock going from the Navy to the Army, then peace time to war time,” Oshiro said. “It’s not that the Navy is less disciplined than the Army, it’s just a whole different world. It’s like taking a New Yorker and moving her to the South.”

Oshiro served for three years before being sent to Iraq. She went in before the rest of her company with one of the Army doctors and other military supply staff to get the medical warehouse set up and ensure all their contacts were in place.

She had been in the Middle East for weeks when it hit her what she was in for. That happened when the first mortar hit, she said.

“It was just one round, but I realized then you can get hit any time,” she said. “You could be sleeping at night and be hit.”

When she’d leave her base to deliver medical supplies, she never knew if she was coming back.

“That was always in my head,” she said. “Every time I would go out, I thought ‘OK this is it.’ Then I would prepare myself.”

In mid-October, one of Oshiro’s friends died of a shrapnel wound after an attack. She still wears the boots she wore that day, stained with her friend’s blood. Though she’s been told to get rid of them by superiors, she can’t let go of them, she said.

As hard as life was for Oshiro in Iraq, in some respects it may have been worse for Burton waiting at home.

“He’s my hero,” Oshiro said of Burton. “If it wasn’t for him ... .” She lets the sentence hang, then adds “He kept me going.”

Burton served in the Navy during the first Gulf War, but stayed stateside. He and Oshiro met for the first time at Camp Lejeune through a mutual friend.

Oshiro was working in the private sector by that time, but made regular calls to the friend and would often end up talking to Burton, too. They met face-to-face a while later, and immediately hit it off.

“For whatever reason, we didn’t stay together, but I never stopped thinking about him and he didn’t stop thinking about me,” Oshiro said.

Burton found Oshiro again in February through a social networking Web site, Facebook.

“After that I’d call him when I couldn’t sleep,” Oshiro said. She often had nightmares and, through the Web cam on her computer, he would watch her sleep.

“She’d just leave the headset on, so I could talk her out of her nightmares,” Burton said.

With the time difference, Oshiro would be heading to bed when Burton came in for the evening, so that arrangement worked out well.

“I could be there and watch her and make sure she was sleeping OK,” he said.

With the cameras, Burton could see and hear what was going on around Oshiro when they talked.

“He could hear the mortars coming in and going out,” Oshiro said. “I could see his face when I had to go and he didn’t know what was happening to me. There was one instance where first you hear the helicopters and outgoing rounds, then the mortars coming in. I was gone for three hours and when I came back in, he was still sitting in front of that computer, watching.”

Now, Burton is dedicated to helping Oshiro readjust to life at home. It’s been a difficult process for her.

“When I first got home, I was like ‘where’s my weapon, where’s my radio, where’s my flack jacket?’ all the time. When we go in places, I have to sit with my back against the wall, so I can see everything that’s going on. When we’re driving, I’m very observant, always looking to see what’s around us, because in Iraq, you’re always looking for an IED.

“People look at it as paranoia, but you have to be paranoid. You’re in survival mode over there.”

Even going about normal tasks, there are sights and smells that instantly carry her back to the battlefield.

When she was home in April, she went to a bar to hear Burton, a musician, perform. When a bartender tossed away some empty bottles, she had a flashback.

“There was this crashing noise and the first thing I did was I got down to grab my weapon,” she recalled. “[Burton] had to calm me down. There are things I can’t let go of and things I won’t let go of.”

At the end of this month, Oshiro is due back at Walter Reed. She’s waiting to find out if she’ll have to have more wrist surgery.

After that, she’ll likely have months of recuperation ahead of her at Fort Gordon in a “warrior transit unit.”

“My only job there is to heal,” she said.

She’ll receive therapy for her wrist and any other physiological and psychological help she needs.

“Where I’ll be, they bend over backward to get you whatever you need,” she said. “They take care of us. It’s an amazing program.”

She plans to make Pawleys Island her home.

It already feels like home, she said, and she’s never been made to feel more welcome.

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